Missouri Governor’s Action To Permit Churches To Receive State Grants Should Spell The End of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer

Less than a week before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the church-state separation case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens yesterday announced that churches are now eligible for the type of grant that was denied to Trinity.

As Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee told The Associated Press last night, Greitens’ action should spell the end of the lawsuit without it ever reaching the high court.

Katskee elaborated: “Gov. Greitens has rendered moot Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. The Supreme Court no longer has a case to hear on Wednesday because the governor just provided the remedy that Trinity is asking the court to award.”

Trinity Lutheran Church sued Missouri officials after the state wouldn’t allow the church to participate in a taxpayer-funded grant program to improve its religious preschool’s playground.

Like the majority of U.S. states, Missouri has a provision in its constitution that prohibits government funds from supporting houses of worship. These “no-aid” clauses safeguard religious freedom by ensuring citizens have freedom of conscience to choose which religions they will voluntarily support. The provisions also protect faith communities from government discrimination and interference.

Katskee said Trinity Lutheran Church is asking the Supreme Court to rule unconstitutional Missouri’s policy so that grants can be awarded to churches in the future. He said Trinity is not asking the court to retroactively award the grant that previously was denied.

Katskee countered the claim by Greitens that the policy change wouldn’t impact the case because the Trinity grant was denied in 2012 by a previous administration.

“The governor made Trinity eligible to receive this grant, which is what the church was asking for,” Katskee said. “The church no longer has anything to ask of the Supreme Court.”

“The Supreme Court can no longer hear this case because it lacks jurisdiction,” Katskee added. “In fact, the Constitution forbids federal courts to issue decisions when there is no longer an actual, live dispute between the parties.”

No official action has been taken yet by the Supreme Court. Friday afternoon, the court asked attorneys for Trinity and the state to respond by noon Tuesday on how they think Greitens' announcement affects the case.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has rendered moot the case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. (photo by Missouri National Guard Staff Sgt. Patrick P. Evenson)

If the Trinity Lutheran case proceeds next week, it will mean the state will be arguing in support of a constitutional provision that both the governor and newly elected Attorney General Josh Hawley have worked to undermine. Since Hawley objected to the state’s no-aid clause while campaigning for office, he recused himself from involvement in the case; a former Democratic solicitor general was tapped to present the state’s argument before the high court.

Greitens, a Republican who just took office in January, called the state’s practice of preventing taxpayer money from being spent on churches discriminatory: “We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work. So, today we are changing that prejudiced policy.”

To the contrary, Americans United argues that the no-aid clauses that have been in existence since the 1800s in Missouri and most other states do encourage churches by helping to maintain the healthy distance between church and state – allowing faith communities to thrive through citizens’ voluntary efforts and without government intrusion.

Many faith leaders agree with us:

“Religious freedom protections in our nation emerged in part as a response to states forcing members of minority faiths to pay taxes to benefit larger faith communities,” said the Rev. Brian Kaylor of Missouri, editor and president of the Baptist Word&Way online publication. “Let us not return to that discriminatory model.”

“Using state money to forward the goals of the church might sound like a good idea, but once we accept money from the state we’re no longer able to be an effective prophetic voice for change in the state,” said the Rev. Bob Swartz, a Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania.

“Taxpayer money should not be used to support any house of worship because government must be impartial,” said the Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, a United Methodist pastor in Iowa.

Stay tuned to our website dedicated to the Trinity case for updates and more information.